Bill Snyder knows something about miracles. Since coming to Kansas State in 1989, Snyder has turned the losingest college football program in Division I-A history into one of the most consistent winners in the country the past five years. But a national championship at a school that averaged just over two wins a year in the '80s? Let's not get carried away.
Snyder has taken the Wildcats to unimagined heights, including an 11-1 record last season, but that one loss was a 30-point thumping at Nebraska. Even with 18 starters returning and the Cornhuskers coming to Manhattan in mid-November, Snyder still sounds much the wannabe.
"Those teams have an advantage when it comes to winning the national championship," Snyder said earlier this week.
The teams Snyder is referring to total about five heading into the 1998 season. Aside from Nebraska, which has won or shared the most unofficial title in sports three of the past four years, there's also Florida State, Florida, Ohio State and defending national champion Michigan.
That number has decreased the past few years, with Miami, Alabama and Washington all falling into an abyss known as NCAA probation; with Notre Dame falling into disarray before and after the resignation two years ago of Lou Holtz; and with Penn State finding more formidable competition in the Big 10 than it ever did as an independent.
"It's very difficult to compete with a Florida State or Nebraska," said Mack Brown, whose teams at North Carolina could beat everyone else in the Atlantic Coast Conference but the Seminoles the past few years and whose Texas Longhorns are looking at even greater obstacles in the Big 12 with the rise of fortunes at Kansas State. "But that's what we're in the business for."
Brown is one of many coaches who believe the gradual reduction of scholarships from 95 to 85 over the past seven years has given many teams a chance to compete for recruits against traditional powers. It has helped longtime doormats such as Kansas State and Northwestern become powers within their respective conferences.
But national champions?
The coaches are not giving up that thin shred of hope.
"I think it can be done," said Virginia coach George Welsh, whose Cavaliers have compiled 11 straight winning seasons and held the No. 1 ranking briefly two months into the 1990 season. "Northwestern almost did it a couple of years ago. We could have one of those years."
Truth is, no school outside the sport's inner circle of elite programs has done it since the number of scholarships for football started dropping during a three-year period between 1991, when the reduction plan was approved by the NCAA in an effort to cut down the spiraling costs of intercollegiate athletics, and 1994, when the plan was fully implemented.
Since Georgia Tech and Colorado shared the national championship in 1990, only Arizona State has come realistically close to realizing the dream. A last-minute touchdown drive by Ohio State prevented Jake Plummer from leading the Wildcats to at least a share of the national title in the Rose Bowl two years ago.
Welsh would like to think that the smaller numbers of scholarship players would increase the number of teams capable of winning a national championship, but having competed against Florida State since the Seminoles joined the ACC in 1992 makes him more of a realist. He knows what it takes to beat Florida State: his Cavaliers are the only team to do so, in 1995.
"We all have the same number [of scholarships]," said Welsh, "but they have more depth than anyone."
As a measuring stick, Welsh points to the number of true freshmen he played last year and the number used by Bobby Bowden. Welsh used seven, the most he has ever played as a head coach. Bowden used 15, including leading rusher Travis Minor. Welsh said that depth is the biggest difference between the top teams and those on the periphery.
"You have to be careful how you practice," said Welsh, who has watched a number of players go down with injuries in practice this preseason. "I don't run as many plays as I used to. Teams like Nebraska, Florida and Florida State, they just have more quality throughout their classes. That gives them a little bit of an edge."
Said West Virginia coach Don Nehlen: "Even getting to 85 [scholarships] is hard to hit. Kids get sick or go home and all of a sudden you're at 81. Then you try to have a kickoff team or a punt return team and by the middle of the season, it's difficult to do that and redshirt players at the same time. That's the difference. They get true freshmen who are good enough to play immediately."
Snyder remembers his first team meeting after coming to Kansas State from Iowa, where he had been offensive coordinator. There were only 47 players in the room, less than half the allotment at the time. "I was almost in an empty room," said Snyder, whose first Wildcat team continued the losing tradition by going 1-10.